Saturday, November 18, 2006

The thing with feathers

There’s always an interesting article or two on
In a section called ‘Quirkies’, headings for offbeat news reports fall under the categories of ‘Quirky Gaffes’, ‘Strange Crime’, ‘Sex Life’, ‘Animal Tales’, ‘Sporting Quirkies’, ‘Show Biz Quirkies’, ‘Heart Warmers’, ‘Rocky Relationships’ and ‘Bad Taste’, telling stories so bizarre one might suspect they were invented.
But ludicrous or outlandish as tends their collective wont, the tales usually turn out to be only too true.
From the man who lit a firecracker tucked into his bottom as a tribute to the famous gunpowder plot of 1605, (Britain’s Guy Fawkes Day) with ridiculously predictable results, to the story titled: ‘Convict posts himself to freedom’ (successfully mailed – he’s still on the run!) there is a delightfully Ripley-esque ‘Believe it or Not’ air to the vast majority of items detailing snakes slithering up toilets, old age pensioners surprised whilst having vigorous sex in unusual locations (or bravely thwarting younger, fitter criminals) as well as the expected inspiring tales of various legless mountain climbers and blind airplane pilots.
But my favourite article is currently gracing the ‘Animal Tales’ section of the web site; it’s the one about the rare Black Australian Swan from Muenster Germany who has fallen hopelessly in love with a gigantic swan-shaped plastic paddle-boat.
‘Black Peter’, a colour-blind avian mater-for-life, has fallen in thrall to the snow-white pleasure-craft; so aroused are his tender affections, he refuses to fly south for the winter.
There’s something both noble and ridiculous about the swan’s devotion – but then there’s something noble and ridiculous about just about anyone who attempts to make a life-long go of a love relationship.
The statistics for the longevity of human relationships are much less heart warming, with 50 % of American couples expected to divorce within the duration of their relationship. In Canada the numbers are a hardly more confidence-inspiring 1 in 3. Of course the numbers are only staggering when compared to the period before 1967, before the Divorce Act allowed married couples to slough off the human source of their emotional despair.
Of all the institutions that seem to exist almost solely to support and exhort the married state, no group is more distressed about the figures than the United States Republican Party. Having tried to co-opt family values whilst de-valuing the legitimacy of anything less than a strict man/woman union, it’s Red State marriages that add the most significant oomph to the United States separation and divorce numbers. (Where they also lead in incarcerations, illegitimacy and violent crime…)
Still, no matter the dire threats conservatives, fundamentalist preachers, ‘REAL’ women and Republicans link to the moral morass they claim the globe is sinking inexorably into as represented by our fickleness toward family, the facts are that divorce stats are actually plateauing. So that’s good news.
(Also good news is that chronic singleness seems to be losing a goodly portion of its sting. The word ‘spinster’ has disappeared almost entirely from our collective vocabulary, whilst the word ‘bachelor’ seems only to appear when the words ‘Charity Auction’, ‘pad’, or ABC Television are in tow.)
But for anyone of a romantic bent, the notion of a creature without human thoughts, morals, values or the ability to rationalize, but chock full of the ability to commit for life, is a sweet and hopeful thought indeed.
Down at the end of my street (well, at the end, turn right and walk two and a half blocks south) sits one of those chain travel agencies – you may have seen one: the exterior painted a lunatic shade of aggressively cheerful red, the windows filled with flight information and bargain basement prices for trips to Tokyo, London and Madrid – and each contains a ubiquitous plastic man: life-sized, dressed in airline pilot blue, complete with cap and tie. He smiles broadly, he gestures confidently, he never leaves his post by the door – and half the time I walk past the travel shop, I do a double take, wondering what a man is doing standing stock still, staring out of a shop window, until I realize and remember: oh, right - it’s ubiquitous patented plastic travel agent guy.
But clearly he’s caught my eye; maybe it’s the smile – or the uniform – or maybe it’s the solidity of his stance. His immoveable, permanency… his dependable there-ness that affects me so each time I happen by. He’s swan-like in his constancy.
But he’s also hard and hollow, two qualities the Muenster swan could never be accused of as demonstrated by his classic mating behaviour: single-minded in his devotion, circling his paddle-boat babe, staring endlessly at it (her) and crooning in his swany way.
(Local Muenster-ites have been so touched by the tale that arrangements have been made for the swan and the boat to spend the winter in a warmer and more protected pond enclave situated beside the elephant enclosure at the local zoo, eschewing the cooler clime of the downtown ornamental lake the two share during the summer months. Ah, the ability of love to move...)
But why admire patented plastic travel agent guy? Why not go straight for Black Peter in a Leda-esque turn of events? Quite apart from the guarantee of feathered fidelity, a quick perusal of Yeats’ glorious 1924 poem describing their mating indicates love with a swan is pretty hot stuff.
Check it out:
A sudden blow: the great wings
beating still
Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.
How can those terrified vague fingers push
The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?
And how can body, laid in that white rush,
But feel the strange heat beating where it lies?
A shudder in the loins engenders there
The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead.
Being so caught up,
So mastered by the brute blood of the air,
Did she put on his knowledge with his power
Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?

Clearly, ubiquitous travel agent guy is a poor substitute for anything approaching the powerful, romantic, endless love demonstrated by cygnus atratus. No matter how far the plastic man-shape can fly you (at low, low prices if you book early) Black Peter would rather stay home and croon to you. Man or man-made, mere mortals rarely come close to achieving his singular, ardent worship.
I am touched. And I haven’t touched an egg in more than a week.
Or hope?

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